Text by Lerato Dumse
Photos by Lerato and Constanza McKinstry
A total 360º is the best way to describe the change of weather that awaited Zanele Muholi and I when we arrived in Ann Arbor, Michigan (USA). Unlike the windy and wet Michigan that greeted us on September 29. 2015, Johannesburg was sunny and dry when we departed from OR Tambo International Airport a day earlier. The University of Michigan, Penny Stamps School of Art and Design invited Muholi to give a presentation as part of their Distinguished Speaker Series on October 1.
True to its name and nickname of “Tree Town”, I watched through the hotel window, as trees moved violently in the direction of the wind. I packed my equipment bag, ready to walk to Michigan Theatre, where the event was to be held. Muholi was already there and had completed the technical setup; I also found a good spot to document the talk. About an hour before the presentation started, Stephen Warner, who works as a staff organist at the Theatre started playing music on the Barton Theatre Pipe Organ.
I was particularly impressed when he played Gabi Gabi, which is a South African song popular at weddings. Stephen continued blessing us with his calming music while the estimated 800 people who attended the talk started arriving.
Professor Marianetta Porter, who is a mixed media artist at the University of Michigan, gave a fitting introduction of Muholi and her work. She opened by saying, “to introduce Zanele Muholi as a photographer, is like describing an ice berg solely by its tip.” Prof Porter hailed Muholi as a storyteller, a biographer, an archivist, a translator, an educator, a champion of human rights and a visual activist whose work and life gives light to black LGBTI individuals in South Africa. Adding that Muholi is an artist of global magnitude, who has won numerous prizes.
To break the ice after coming on stage, Muholi thanked everyone “for coming out tonight.” She then addressed the LGBTI people, their families and friends in the audience, telling them that it is okay. “It is not a crime to be, we did not give birth to ourselves, we are born by mothers and fathers might not be homosexuals,” Muholi continued. She gave some background into what motivated her to start documenting and told the attentive group that, “if you don’t see yourself in any magazine create your own because it is your life anyways.”
Before delving deep into her work, the activist provided context about the history of South Africa. Detailing how in 1990 SA had the first gay pride, adding that for the first time in 1994 all citizens had the right to vote, in 96 the government amended the constitution, which protects everyone’s sexuality, race, religion and traditions. Explaining that the major point for producing her projects is to make sure,“our voices and visuals form part of academic text and art spaces where they are hardly found.”
Her first treat for the audience was from an earlier publication Only Half The Picture, taken from 2003-2006. The first image titled Zol, was captured while she was still a student at Market Photo Workshop. In this self-portrait Muholi is seen smoking, she then explained that she decided to smoke paper for that photo, people often assume that she smokes weed because of her dreadlocks, while in reality she doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol. Muholi’s visual activism dates back to the early 2000s when she started doing research and documenting hate crime cases. She reminded the audience that she works as an insider in the LGBTI community.
The next projected series was the highly favoured Faces and Phases 2006-present which is a collection of more than 250 portraits of Muholi’s friends and acquaintances that identify as lesbian and transgender. It was inspired by Busi Sigasa a friend of hers who died at the age of 25. Muholi has dedicated the project to her [Sigasa] and many other young individuals who might not be in the pictures, but are striving to survive in the spaces where they live. Muholi elaborated that she returns to some of the participants and does follow up. It is also important for her participants have a name and surname as well as the location where the photo was taken.
Being 2006-present was the next chosen series. It is about intimacy and a bond between lovers. As the artist put it, “it is about that personal space we share we those we love and who make us feel sane when things are not going our way.”
Her aim with this particular project was to shift the focus a little bit away from the violence, because she wanted to talk about “the love that disrupts the perpetrator.
”ZaVa 2012-2014 is produced as she moves between paces looking at people and herself. The title derives from the first two letters of her name and that of her partner, Valerie Thomas. Muholi shared with the audience that she requested Valerie to collaborate in the project, in order for them to share their love, just like she has shared the love of other participants. “I convinced her that this is how I would like our grandchildren to remember us,” adding that this work is like letters to their grandchildren.
She closed with the 2013 wedding of Ayanda and Nhlanhla Moremi. Muholi revealed that most of her projects are done periodically; to make sure they connect to either heritage sights or special moments in SA history and beyond. She went on to say that she wants to ensure that she contributes to history, as a SA citizen. Muholi has documented a number of projects as a way of contesting that wrong myth that it is Un-African to be homosexual. Since embarking on this journey of documenting, she went back and forth looking at herself, looking at friends, looking at friends of friends, touching on intimacy, and looking at portraiture.
The talented artivist said, “It is a way in which we speak and confront those who dare not to believe that we are part and parcel of society.” Most importantly she continues to document because she wants to ensure that those who come after her have a tangible documentation as a reference point and for posterity.